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The Greatest Show on Broadway

Long before P.T. (Phineas Taylor) Barnum (1810 – 1891) founded his famous three-ring circus, Barnum bounced around lower Broadway where he started a number of ventures, including the American Museum, an “instructive entertainment” venue.  Barnum’s first museum was started in 1842 on Broadway at Ann Street and then later moved north to 537 Broadway between Prince and Spring.

Barnum’s Second American Museum at 437 Broadway (image: Library of Congress)

As Eric Grundhauser describes Barnum’s American Museum on Atlas Obscura:  Inspired by Barnum’s love of both spectacle and knowledge, the American Museum became a wild mish-mash of exhibits that included live animals, an elegant lecture hall that hosted grand theater and luminaries.

The museum was a huge success until it burned to the ground in 1865. Undeterred, Barnum reopened his museum in 1866, this time at 537-541 Broadway between Prince and Spring Streets in a building that was formerly home to Buckley’s Opera House.  Seemingly cursed, disaster struck once again at Barnum’s museum when the building caught fire at midnight on March 3, 1868 and was burned beyond repair (537 Broadway was rebuilt as a sister building to 541 Broadway, see prior post 537-541 Broadway here). The frigid weather that night caused the water being used to fight the fire to freeze and created an unintended spectacle, an entire row of buildings covered in ice.

Exterior of Barnum’s Second Museum at 537 Broadway after the fire (image: NYPL)

Following the second fire, instead of rebuilding at 537 Broadway, Barnum decided to get out of the museum business. After briefly turning his attention to politics, in 1881 Barnum partnered with James Bailey and James L. Hutchinson to form the Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, the world’s first 3-ring circus.

Barnum’s two museums were not his only ventures on Broadway. In 1835, Niblo’s Garden, on Broadway between Houston and Prince (see prior post on Niblo’s here), hosted Barnum’s first ever “exhibition.” He exhibited a person, a formerly enslaved African-American woman named Joice Heth, who he claimed was 161 years old and was also the personal nurse to a young George Washington. This was later proven not to be the case, but he profited handsomely in the meantime.

Although this spectacle was short-lived, it was Barnum’s foray into show business, as well as his foray onto Broadway where he made a name for himself. After his time on SoHo Broadway, Barnum remained an entertainer, good or bad, full of sensational stories. As Kathy Maher told the New York Times, “His lasting legacy is how he managed to take something simple and make it extraordinary… He was a genius in promotion. People ask me what he would be today. He would be Disney and Donald Trump combined.”

Oh and don’t forget to check out The Greatest Showman opening on December 20, look for scenes including PT Barnum on SoHo Broadway!

Yukie Ohta is founder of The SoHo Memory Project 

Read more from the Look Back at SoHo Broadway Series by Yukie Ohta 

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